NASCAR driver Danica Patrick sits with USA TODAY Sports to talk about road rage, passing her driver's test on the first try and more. USA TODAY Sports
HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Danica Patrick proclaims 2017 needs to be “more fun.”
“By fun I mean I just hope it goes better,” Patrick told USA TODAY Sports.
Patrick, 34, was forced to embrace a frustrating fifth full-time NASCAR season of slow but incremental improvement and is eager to see what a change of teammates and car manufacturers brings at Stewart-Haas Racing. Clint Bowyer will step in for Tony Stewart, who retired but will remain as co-owner. And the team will switch from Chevrolet and an alliance with Hendrick Motorsports to Ford.
Patrick commiserated with boyfriend and Roush Fenway Racing driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. recently on their communal plight since they entered NASCAR’s top series together as rookies in 2013. RFR has been beset by worsening performance shortfalls, with the team losing veterans Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards and down-sizing to two cars after Greg Biffle departed after this season.
“I said ‘Babe, your first year [when he was a career-best 19th in points] and my second [career-high three top-10s] were the only years it’s kind of like been “all right”,’ ” she said.
“And so why four and five years in, our first and second years in are the better ones has to do with teams, cars, changes, personnel, luck. There’s just a lot of things that go into it. I think in NASCAR, it’s a matter of putting the right people together at the right time, with the right experience levels and wanting it.”
Patrick still wants NASCAR success, she said, even as she takes on more outside ventures like the active wear collection Warrior, which goes on sale in January. She signed a multi-year contract extension with SHR in 2015. Not performing well, she said, “breaks my heart,” noting she spent “the whole night being angry” after finishing 29th in the next-to-last race of the season at Phoenix.
In 154 top-series races, Patrick has six top-10 finishes — led by a sixth-place result at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2014 — and one pole, in the 2013 Daytona 500.
“I think if I didn’t care I wouldn’t be mad at all and I wouldn’t even be talking about it,” she said. “I just want it to be fun.”
This season was not. It concluded Patrick’s fourth full campaign at NASCAR’s top level, after she made a transition from IndyCar, where her groundbreaking success included the top finish by a woman in the Indianapolis 500 in 2009 and a race victory in Japan in 2008.
As has been the case with all of Patrick’s highly scrutinized career, her 2016 season was an exercise in tempering expectations and experience and judging growth vs. regression in various statistical categories.
With a best result of 11th at Charlotte Motor Speedway this fall, she had no top-10 finishes for the first time as a full-time Cup driver after posting two last season. That said, her average finish improved for a fifth straight season to a career best of 22nd, although that figure put her in the back half of 40-car fields. Patrick led a career-best 30 laps over six races — her career Cup total is 57 — but finished 24th in the standings for the second consecutive season.
Before the season finale Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where she finished 19th, Patrick deemed her season “real average.”
“And I think ‘average’ is really even a generous way to put it,” she said. “And even on weekends where I feel like we were faster and I felt like the car was pretty decent, we just somehow managed to not pass enough cars and still end up around 20th or catch some bad breaks and still end up around 20th. But on the other side of it, I don’t think any one weekend was a super-horrible disaster.”
This season was unfulfilling, but uniquely so, when compared to 2015 under then-crew chief Daniel Knost. Billy Scott replaced Knost to begin this season.
Continuity is an oft-mentioned and highly valued commodity for Patrick, which could be challenged as SHR changes to Ford engines next season. The most productive period of her Cup career was with Tony Gibson in 2014, but the crew chief — her first as a full-time Cup driver — and his team were reassigned internally to Kurt Busch in the final three races of the season. Gibson and the 2004 series champion have finished eighth and seventh in points the past two seasons. Patrick has never had the same crew chief for full consecutive seasons.
“Last year we started off the year pretty well and we had a couple top 10s and it was going really well and then all of a sudden it fell off a cliff and we were very slow in all practices and it was just really bad,” she said of 2015.
“I think this year, it’s just been so much more in the average category. Not tons of highlights but maybe the highlight would be that Billy and I have worked together for a whole year and I feel like we are getting better working together and starting closer setup-wise and making good adjustments. If we can put all the other factors into place that help the car be fast and build great cars and have great manufacturer support and things like that, then maybe it’ll all come together.”
And be a lot more fun.
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